strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

  • Wall of the Dead

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Crab Heaven and Scientific Immortality

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 27, 2012

Tudge’s tiny crab

Here’s a nice piece about having a new species named in your honor, from ScienceDaily:

Areopaguristes tudgei. That’s the name of a new species of hermit crab recently discovered on the barrier reef off the coast of Belize by Christopher Tudge, a biology professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Tudge has been interested in biology his whole life, from boyhood trips to the beach collecting crustaceans in his native Australia, to his undergraduate and PhD work in zoology and biology at the University of Queensland. He has collected specimens all over the world, from Australia to Europe to North and South America.

Until now, he has never had a species named after him. He only found out about his namesake after reading an article about it in the journal Zootaxa. Apparently, finding out after-the-fact is standard practice in the highly formalized ritual of naming a new species.

The two crustacean taxonomists and authors of the paper who named the new crab after Tudge, Rafael Lemaitre of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and Darryl L. Felder of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Department of Biology Laboratory for Crustacean Research, have known Tudge since he first came to Washington in 1995 as a postdoc research fellow at the Smithsonian.

Crustacean Elation

Lemaitre and Felder have been collecting specimens on the tiny Belizean island for decades and for more than 10 years, they had asked Tudge — who specializes in the structures of crustacean reproduction and how they relate to the creatures’ evolutionary history — to join them on one of their semiannual research outings. Finally, in February 2010, Tudge joined them on a tiny island covered with hundreds of species of their favorite fauna.

It was crab heaven for a cast of crustacean guys.

“So you can take 40 steps off the island and Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, New Species Discoveries, The Species Seekers | Leave a Comment »

The Medical Martyrs

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 25, 2012

As an afterthought, when I was writing The Species Seekers, I included a listing of people who had died in the quest to discover new species.  The Wall of the Dead: A Memorial to Fallen Naturalists turned out to be one of the most popular features of the book.  It’s also part of a current exhibition at The British Natural History Museum’s annex in Tring, and it’s a constant object of reader interest at this blog.  Since I posted it here early in 2011, more than 28,000 people have visited (and considerably added to) The Wall of the Dead.

Now I’m working on a new book, The Great Deliverance, about the fight to understand and treat epidemic disease.   This topic may seem like a reach for many readers who know me mainly as a writer on natural history.  But understanding disease has always been a matter of understanding that our own bodies are part of the natural world, and the natural world is part of our bodies.  We are a habitat,  though often against our will.

Many doctors, nurses, and researchers have given their lives to identifying and defeating the pathogens that have routinely killed us.  So I am now beginning to put together a new list, under the title The Medical Martyrs.  As with The Wall of the Dead, I invite readers to send me names of their colleagues, friends, loved ones, and heroes who died while working to stop epidemic disease.  I’ve drafted a few examples to get things started.  Here’s the format:

Last name, first name (year of birth-death), brief description of specialty and also of the occasion and cause of death, as well as the age at death.  Please include links to articles, obituaries, web sites, or other useful biographical material.   I’ll get your suggestions up onto the list at frequent intervals.

And here are a few examples of medical heroes who gave their lives in the quest to control epidemic disease:

Akhtar, Naseema (1977-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 35.

Bibi, Farzana (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Peshawar, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 14

Last Name Unknown, Fahmida (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 20

Last Name Unknown, Kaniz Fatima (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan,  for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 20

Last Name Unknown, Madiha (1993-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 19.

Jesse Lazear

Lazear, Jesse W. (1866-1900), a Johns Hopkins Hospital physician, joined the U.S. Army and served with Walter Reed on the commission to investigate yellow fever in Cuba.  He confirmed the theory that mosquitoes transmit the disease.  But without telling his colleagues he experimented on himself with infected mosquitoes, and died of the disease, age 34.

Matthew Lukwiya

Lukwiya, Matthew (1957-2000), medical director of a hospital in Gulu, Uganda, during an Ebola outbreak.  He was awakened when none of the other staff would touch a patient who had fallen out of bed, coughing blood.  Lukwiya put on most of his protective gear, but not a face shield to protect his eyes, and lifted the patient back into bed.  He contracted Ebola himself and died soon after, age 43.  At the funeral of a colleague in the same outbreak, he had declared, “It is our vocation to save life. It involves risk, but when we serve with love, that is when the risk does not matter so much. When we believe our mission is to save lives, we have got to do our work.”

 Mehsud, Umer Farooq, (1982-2012),  killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, in Peshawar, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 30.

Janet Parker

Parker, Janet (1938-1978), a medical photographer at the University of Birmingham Medical School, contracted the world’s last case of smallpox and died, age 40, when improper procedures caused the release of a smallpox strain being used for research one floor below her darkroom.

Schnitker, Paul (1942-1969), a doctor who graduated from Harvard Medical School, was the only member of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, an elite branch of the Centers for Disease Control, ever to die in action.  He was traveling to serve as a medical advisor to refugee relief efforts during the Biafra civil war, but missed his scheduled flight.  The plane he caught instead from London to Lagos, Nigeria, was destroyed on landing by a bomb.   According to his brother John, “My parents believed he was killed by the very people he was sent to help.”  Schnitker was 27 years old.

Posted in The Great Deliverance | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Natural History of a Wood Picture Frame

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 22, 2012

When you see an old picture frame with worm holes, you’re looking at one of the many places where art meets natural history.  Here’s the story from ScienceDaily:

Down the “worm” hole of a picture frame

By examining art printed from woodblocks spanning five centuries, Blair Hedges, a professor of biology at Penn State University, has identified the species responsible for making the ever-present wormholes in European printed art since the Renaissance. The hole-makers, two species of wood-boring beetles, are widely distributed today, but the “wormhole record,” as Hedges calls it, reveals a different pattern in the past, where the two species met along a zone across central Europe like a battle line of two armies.

The research, which is the first of its kind to use printed art as a “trace fossil” to precisely date species and to identify their locations, will be published in the journal Biology Letters on Nov. 21.

Hedges explained that most printed “wormholes” were formed in the carved woodblocks by adult insects and not by the worm-like larvae. After landing on a piece of dry wood, beetles lay their eggs in cracks and crevices. The larvae then spend three to four years burrowing inside the wood, nourishing themselves on the wood’s cellulose and growing until they enter the cocoon-like pupal stage when they transform into adults. The adult beetles then burrow straight up toward the surface of the wood, exiting to find a mate and to begin the life cycle anew. “The so-called ‘wormholes’ found in wood — including furniture, rafters, oak floors, and woodblocks that were used to print art in books — are not Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Like Studying Stars that Have Blinked Out

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 20, 2012

On average, it takes 21 years from the time a new species is collected before scientists get around to describing it.  That delay can make a life-or-death difference in the middle of an extinction crisis.  Here’s a report from Carrie Arnold at Science Magazine:

High in the Himalayas in 2008, a tiny flash of yellow caught Paul Egan’s eye. The poppy intrigued the doctoral student in botany at Trinity College Dublin, as he was alreadyattempting to study the ecology of several species of Himalayan poppy. Egan extensively documented the bright yellow blooms that he found, tentatively concluding that this flower was a new species. However, he eventually figured out that other scientists had collected samples of the same flower starting in the 1960s but didn’t realize it was new. The samples sat on shelves for nearly 50 years, until Egan finally published the first formal description of Meconopsis autumnalis and the closely related M. manasluensis last year in the journal Phytotaxa.

Such a delay is not unusual, a study published today in Current Biology finds. On average, more than 2 decades pass between the first collection of samples of a new species and the publication of the species’ description in scientific literature. With species falling into extinction at record rates, many already-collected organisms may die out before they ever make it into scientific literature, researchers say.

Read more here.

Or take a look at the report from ScienceDaily:

Many of the world’s most unfamiliar species are just sitting around on museum shelves collecting dust. That’s according to a report in the November 20th issue of the Cell Press journal Current Biology showing that it takes more than 20 years on average before a species, newly collected, will be described.

It’s a measure the researchers refer to as the species’ “shelf life,” and that long shelf life means that any conservation attempts for unknown, threatened species could come much too late. The problem, the researchers say, is due to a lack of experts and of the funding and resources needed to do the job.

“Species new to science are almost never recognized as such in the field,” says Benoît Fontaine of Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. “Our study explains why it often happens that we describe species which were collected alive decades ago and which can be extinct now — just as astronomers study the light of stars which do not exist anymore.” Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Leave a Comment »

The Species Sideshow

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 20, 2012

Coconut octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus, described in 1964 by Taki), from the western Pacific. The common name is said to come from its habit of using coconut shell halves as hiding places.

Choose one: A riddle wrapped up in an enigma. Or: A hairy frog fish (Antennarius striatus, described in 1794 by British Museum naturalist George Shaw) from Indonesia (Photo: Gary Peart)

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Mathematics of Being Down a Blind Allee

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 13, 2012

African wild dogs in Botswana, photographed by Chris Johns for our 1999 National Geographic cover story

One of my failings as a writer is an almost total lack of formal science education.  Another is that anything mathematical gives me the willies.  So I was not previously aware of the Allee Threshold, the point at which a small population starts to decline more quickly than might have been expected, nor had I heard of Allee Effects.  And I should probably steer clear of a paper about the mathematics of Allee Effects.

But this paper has to do with one of favorite animals, the highly threatened African wild dog (Lycaon pictus).  I wrote about them in National Geographic in 1999, and again in my 2009 book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time.  Last I heard, the wild dog population has actually increased over the past decade, because of intensive conservation efforts and the discovery of new populations.  So with that caveat, here’s the press release from ScienceDaily:

Disease, destruction of habitats, pollution, chemical and pesticide use, increased UV-B radiation, and even the presence of new species are some of the causes for disappearing species. “Allee effect,” the phenomenon by which a population’s growth declines at low densities, is another key reason for perishing populations, and is an overriding feature of a paper published last month in the SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics.

Authors Avner Friedman and Abdul-Aziz Yakubu use mathematical modeling to analyze the impact of disease, animal migrations and Allee effects in maintaining biodiversity. Some Allee effect causes in smaller and less dense populations are challenges faced in finding mating partners, genetic inbreeding, and cooperative behaviors such as group feeding and defense. The Allee threshold in such a population is the population below which it is likely to go extinct, and above which persistence is possible. Declining populations that are known to exhibit Allee effects currently include the African wild dog and the Florida panther.

Author Abdul-Aziz Yakubu explains how disease can Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

Our Undiscovered Earth

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 12, 2012

Out of its depths

I’m still playing catch up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (no damage but no power at home), and a reporting trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  This item by Michael McCarthy in The Independent caught my eye, about finding a whale no one had ever seen before, and what that suggests about how much we still need to learn about life on Earth:

We all know the baleen whales, which have baleen plates, or giant filters in their mouths to trap plankton, because these 15 or so species include the world’s biggest animals, such as the blue whale and the humpback, and around British coasts, the minke whale. And we all know the toothed whales, because this group of 50-plus species includes all the dolphins and porpoises, and other very familiar creatures such as the sperm whale – Moby Dick in Melville’s epic – and the orca or killer whale, and the white whale, the beluga.

But the beaked whales are largely a mystery, to zoologists as well as to general wildlife enthusiasts. Cuvier’s beaked whale, Gervais’ beaked whale, Blainville’s beaked whale, Sowerby’s beaked whale – ever heard of any of them? Top of the class if you have. This group of about 20 species is undoubtedly the least-known of all marine mammals, and very likely the least known large mammals on earth, because they spend much of their time at tremendous depths in the ocean, feeding on squid, and are rarely encountered on the surface.

I have always been fascinated by them, so I was even more fascinated to learn that the rarest of them all has just been seen and described for the first time. This is Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, New Species Discoveries | Leave a Comment »

Looking at the American Landscape

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 29, 2012

Wisconsin road by Gregory Conniff

I am about to run away from Hurricane Sandy and not sure when I will be able to post next.  But I’d like to put in a plug for my brother Greg Conniff’s photography show at a gallery in Madison, Wisconsin.  His photographs are about the American landscape, and how we have altered it, and they are worth savoring.  The show runs until December 23.  He’ll also be posting daily on his Tumblr blog.

Posted in Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

A Good Handful of Sea Snakes

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 26, 2012

The great heyday of natural history museums is over, and nowadays, these institutions, and their vast backrooms of aging specimen collections, tend to be badly funded, or even completely put out of business.

But they also continue to produce surprises, including the discovery of new species.  Here’s a ScienceDaily account of a newly found sea snake, Aipysurus mosaicus, from a museum in Copenhagen.

In a formalin-filled jar in Copenhagen Natural History Museum, a new snake species has recently been discovered.

“Museums are probably full of undiscovered species, and are an invaluable archive worthy of protection, just like the jungle itself,” says Johan Elmberg, professor of animal ecology at Kristianstad University in Sweden.

The newly discovered mosaic sea snake, named after its unusually patterned skin, which looks just like a Roman floor mosaic, lives in one of the world’s most endangered environments — the tropical coral reefs around Northern Australia and Southern New Guinea.

“Sea snakes are a good indicator of how the coral reefs and other precious ecosystems are doing. If there are snakes left in the environment it shows that the reefs are healthy and intact,” says Johan Elmberg.

The new sea snake was found by chance by Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Leave a Comment »

Educate Boys and Girls Equally. Both Matter.

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 25, 2012

I believe in increasing educational opportunities for girls.  But I am disturbed by what seems to be a corresponding tendency to trivialize education of boys. Look on the internet, and you will see the idea sanctified with a supposed African proverb:  “Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community.”

As far as I have been able to tell (and please correct me if anybody out there can point out an actual African origin), this fantasy “African proverb” is actually a sort of Reader’s Digest condensation of a thought in Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea.

Here’s what Mortenson wrote:

“Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in cities. But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.”

So here’s a better condensation of the first half of what Mortenson wrote:  “Educate a boy and you educate a city,” and thus perhaps a nation.

And regarding the second half:  Isn’t it kind of patronizing to think that all you do when you educate a girl is educate a village?

Malala Yousafzai was reaching a little higher than that.  Boys can, too.

Posted in The Primate File | Leave a Comment »